As the head of US Operations for Japan’s version of HBO, WOWOW, Kayo Washio is used to working under pressure and alongside some of the biggest names in the business. With five projects currently in development, ThisIsTheLatest caught up with Kayo to talk about how much the broadcast industry has changed and continues to evolve, the acquisition she’s most proud of and her advice for anyone looking to follow in her footsteps.
TITL: What is it about broadcasting that encouraged you to make it a career path and how did you get started?
Kayo Washio: I have a relative who worked for the U.N. in New York City and was a licensed attorney who passed the New York State Bar. She was born and raised in Japan, like I was. Because of her, I wanted to be an international attorney, starting from the time I was in high school. When I enrolled and attended University, I selected International Law as my major. While studying, I learned that law practice and enforcement has a lot of gray areas and I soon came to the realization that this was not the field I could spend a lifetime working in. At that time, while I was in the midst thinking of what I truly loved to do, I discovered a unique ‘unknown’ person who accomplished a remarkable feat, and thought it would make for a great interview feature for an outlet. I arranged a job interview for myself with a TV broadcaster to become a reporter/creator and to make a program for reporting on this great figure I discovered. In Japan, you don’t need to work for a company that relates to your major at your college, and this experience allowed me to begin working for WOWOW right after I graduated university.
TITL: It could be argued that, like film, the broadcasting industry is dominated by men. With that in mind, how much, or little, of a struggle has it been for you to pave your way and make a name for yourself as well as you have in recent years? Are you seeing a rise in the number of women joining the business and if so, does such please you?
KW: Having worked for an established ‘old guard’ type of Japanese company for about 20 years and working in Japan for about 15 years before moving to Los Angeles, I can say I have much more freedom and flexibility here in U.S. The entertainment industry in the U.S. is much, much, much less dominated by men compared to Japan.
There are many cultural and business rules in Japan that play into gender inequality. Some of you might realize that we exchange business cards by holding our card with both hands when we meet a new person – right at the onset of the meeting before having any conversation. The order in which cards are exchanged is important, and rules dictate that you should exchange cards with the person with the highest title, which in Japan is normally the oldest man. I’ve often seen the awkward situation here in the U.S. where senior executives try to exchange a business card with an American older male first, even if a female has higher position.
I understand it’s very difficult, but eventually I would like to have a society where we do not need to talk about these gender disparity issues. Like most, I just want to work with talented people who I enjoy collaborating with – regardless of gender, race, nationality, ethnicity, etc. Life is short and we are all one human race.
TITL: For those who don’t understand the way in which broadcasting and its companies work, what are the main objectives of your job as the head of U.S. Operations?
KW: Basically, the objective of my job is to secure the best content – films, TV series, special award shows, concerts, etc. – for our service in Japan. WOWOW has established and maintained tremendous relationships with studios, networks and content rights holders for about the last 30 years, which positions us well to make great acquisitions. Growing and nurturing these relationships in the U.S. is so important for a foreign company like WOWOW. I am diligent in trying to foster even more relationships through an open and transparent exchange of information with new companies on a daily basis and explore new relationships not only from the sales side, but also on the production side through our co-production projects. This all dovetails another very important objective – building the WOWOW brand name here in the U.S.
TITL: Is there one aspect of your job you like more than any other or do you just enjoy the different every day challenges that come your way?
KW: I love waking up every day to the opportunity of working with very talented creators and artists. These kinds of opportunities have motivated me to keep aiming high and stoke my passion for the next hit project! I’m always mobile too. I’m not a type of person who can sit in an office from 9-6 every single day.
In Japan, most companies have a job rotation system whereby every 3-5 years employees are transferred to a different department within the company and assigned new job duties without any reason. Because of this system, Japanese people are used to working with various titles. But here in the U.S., more value is placed on experience, expertise and relationships and how these are built over time by working in the same field. I very much prefer the American approach on this front.
TITL: WOWOW is essentially the Japan version of HBO – how do you feel about the comparisons, and would you agree with them?
KW: While there is a difference in brand name recognition worldwide, where HBO is bigger and more widely recognized, I think HBO and WOWOW are alike in that the two companies strive to be the preeminent suppliers of premium content.
Comparing WOWOW with HBO is not an apples to apples comparison though. The base systems are different. In Japan, people don’t need to pay any fees to watch network TV and many households still do not carry cable nor satellite. WOWOW as a business is not worried about chord cutting in the same way HBO and other television channels have been, but are intelligently adapting to now. Viewers would have been able to subscribe to WOWOW directly since the launch of our service in 1991.
Systems aside, when it comes to programming, I think WOWOW has similar programming selection criteria to HBO, and that is a great thing for audiences who expect the best quality of movies, TV series and events. As a premium pay television service, we would like to show only best quality content from all over the world to our subscribers. For example, we broadcast movies that have had great box office results in Japan from all major studios and also great quality movies from all over the world such as awarded films at film festivals.
WOWOW curates the best content in each area. We have aired four major tennis tournaments, since we consider them the premiere tennis events; licensed the best American shows every year; produced top original documentaries and TV series, which were created with very talented Japanese creators and Japanese artists; and started doing co-productions five years ago to produce our original programs with international creators and artists.
TITL: Your job has allowed you to work with Martin Scorsese and executive produce his documentary “The New York Review of Books: A 50 Year Argument.” How did you get involved with that project and how did you find working with such a highly respected individual?
KW: It was through my relationship with a sales agent whom I worked with on the documentary “Cathedrals of Culture.” She informed me that Martin Scorsese was coming to Berlin at the time I was there for the World Premiere of ‘Cathedrals”, and that he would be giving a presentation about his next passion project. So naturally, I rearranged my travel to attend his presentation and began thinking about ways to structure working together. I had twice interviewed Martin before, for my program in Japan, but of course this was a totally different interaction and I was very excited about this opportunity.
Martin Scorsese is fascinating and truly brilliant. I don’t know how he handles all the things he has going on in his world. He remembers every detail of everything he has seen and done and knows how he should handle every deal and circumstance!!! His knowledge of movies is second to none. For example, I learned quickly that he has more knowledgeable of Japanese films and Japanese directors than me. I was also fascinated with the fact that he doesn’t create any walls between himself and newcomers in the business. He treats everyone equally – with respect. That says a lot about his character and composition. I really hope I can join another project of his again in the near future!
TITL: You’ve also handled negotiations for projects involving Robert Redford, Wim Wenders and others. Given the pressure you must feel in those situations, how do you stay focused and relaxed?
KW: In these situations my feelings were more of excitement than pressure! I of course knew all about the legendary Robert Redford and Wim Wenders before I started to work on the project. I just felt that if I joined their project, I would rather enjoy the experience and be fully immersed and contribute rather than be shy and passive! One thing I’ve always kept in mind since the first day I started as a producer is that I want all people who work with me to want to work with me again, even after challenging times like a hard negotiation or having creative differences. This is my goal for everybody who has worked with me. I hope they felt that way too.
TITL: Is there any one of projects/acquisitions you’re particularly proud of? If so, which is and why?
KW: Producing a film or event is so difficult that I feel a great sense of accomplishment with all the projects I have had the privilege to be involved in, and am proud of every one! If I have to single out one project though, I would say a small mini-documentary about Baz Luhrmann was especially gratifying for me. This was a passion project of mine in 2003 and WOWOW at the time couldn’t understand why I would produce this particular documentary. But I felt it was necessary for me to introduce our subscribers to Baz Luhrmannn’s vision and his unique way of thinking, as well as the people surrounding him in his private studio. I really felt this program would inspire WOWOW viewers and encourage them to purse their dreams.
I remember telling my boss at the time that I would put my own money into producing this program, but I needed to have a slot for broadcasting it. In the end, I got a very small budget approved by WOWOW, which is still the lowest budget I’ve ever had to work with, and we made a great documentary. To this day, I watch this program whenever I have difficulties because it reminds me where I came from and encourages me to enjoy the process, even if it’s very tough, to achieve my goals.
TITL: Are there any projects or negotiations underway you can tell me about?
KW: This is a very exciting time at WOWOW as I have five projects currently in development. I can’t reveal many details just yet, other than to say they will all be narrative features. I think audiences will be excited when we make the announcements very soon!
TITL: With the rise in social media and illegal streaming sites, are you finding your job any harder to do in terms of being able to get a good deal for clients and broadcasters who fret about audience figures and the like?
KW: This is a great question. The situation stemming from evolving technologies definitely costs us more than before and forces us to spend much more time dealing with agreements and recognizing and addressing new technology related components. Generally speaking, Japan is as advanced technologically as any nation, but it seems our problems and the serious issues that arise are at a lower volume compared to other technically advanced countries.
TITL: What advice would you give to anyone looking to follow in your footsteps and aim for a career such as yours? What three things would you say they need in order to get their foot in the door?
KW: You have to be strong enough and confident enough to really be yourself and should try to enjoy every step of the journey to realizing your dreams. Everyone’s experiences and encounters will ultimately be useful. Life is like a circle! Now you might see your experiences and encounters like many dots, but in the near future these dots will be dot-line and then will be continuous line!
Three things are 1.) Really get to know yourself well – meaning know your strong points, what you are best at, and also your weak points. 2.) Don’t be afraid to take chances, but be well prepared to take chances since you don’t know when they come 3.) Building trusting relationships with people you would like to work
TITL: Finally then, where do you see the future of broadcasting going in the years to come, and what would you most like to see the industry take on board/bring to fruition for both those in the industry and TV/film fans?
KW: One thing that never changes is that “great content” has staying power. It will live on forever. The only thing that will change is how it is consumed – from a big screen to a small watch. Talented PEOPLE have, and will be, the key to the creation of great content. AI cannot create content with the warmth of people. We have to keep creating great content but consider which type of content to fit which type of media.
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